Thinking about a place’s history with the plants and the nostalgia of the seagulls: a visit to the Frédéric-Back park
In this ethnography of Frédéric-Back park, I based myself on Cristina Moretti’s walking ethnography exercise and gave importance to more-than-human encounters and their manifestations. This resulted in a rich lecture of the park which is configured by multiple entanglements of human and non-human beings.
By Camila Patiño Sánchez
I based this ethnography of Frédéric-Back park, situated in the borough of Saint-Michel, Montreal, on Moretti’s (2017) walking ethnography exercise and gave importance to more-than-human encounters and their manifestations. This resulted in a rich lecture of the park which is configured by multiple entanglements of human and non-human beings (Smart & Smart, 2017a). The site appears at first to be shaped within the “technological determinist” view of experts who anticipate how nature behaves in this space, under the impression that their interventions will repair nature (Smart & Smart, 2017b). With this approach, they also participate in the erasure of the role of the Michelois.e.s (Saint-Michel residents). Looking closer at natures’ responses to the space one can see their own agencies and capacities to determine where they anticipate life for themselves, while acting as the collective memory of the site’s metamorphosis (Myers, 2015).
Letting the plants tell us about the park
I drove to get to the Complexe Environnemental de Saint-Michel (CESM), of which the Frédéric Back park is a part. With the arrival of spring, mobilities change: more people are walking on the streets, there are more cyclists, and of course, there was the usual number of cars, trucks, and buses at that moment of the day. This myriad of mobilities and rhythms are characteristic of the city. A constant negotiation of the spaces that are (or are not) allocated for all these different ways to move from point A to point B. Once I arrived in the park, my first impression was a deep sense of quietness and immobility, except for the wind. Few people were walking, one or two were jogging, and birds were flying around. The rest, like the trees, benches, the white spheres, all were just there for one to move around freely. This freedom was nevertheless conditioned. The site was divided by a fence between the “park” and the other “unarranged” side, what remains of a quarry. On the quarry side, there was no “design”. It was not there to be consumed as a relaxing and “natural” space.
I sat down at one of the highest points of this part of the park. It was arranged with benches so that you could lie down to have a look at all directions, as a belvedere. The sun was very warm, but the wind was chilly. It made me realize how exposed I was. This section of the park is apparently called “Le Boisé” (the Wood): it was indicated on a board near by. It also mentionned that the uniqueness of the park is due to “son immensité, le génie environnemental et l’expérience hors normes qu’il propose” (“its immensity, the environmental genius and out of the ordinary experience it proposes”). I found that sign interesting, as I did not feel like I was in a wood, but rather I was exposed to the wind and the sun because of the absence of trees. The trees that are there are baby trees carefully planted, probably by municipal blue-collar workers, following the experts’ blueprints – I imagine one of the “genies environnementaux” or urban designers. “Le Boisé” is thus the anticipation of these trees to grow, as planned by the experts. I had a look at the rest of the plants that were around me. They were very carefully and squarely planted in specifically delimited places. It was beautiful, but certainly not “organic”. They gave colour and texture to the grassy surface of the site, more like a meadow, but not the sense of woods.
This scenario made me think of Frédéric-Back’s Academy award-winning short film, The Man who Planted Trees (1987). In the short film, a man tells the story of a lone shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, that planted thousands of oaks and birches to bring back life in a valley of the Alps in Provence, France. In his story, no one knew that this valley wasn’t the product of a gift of nature, but rather the lifetime hard work of one devoted man, living a simple life outside the “civilized” world – which is portrayed as the source of all vices such as destruction, dirtiness, and selfishness. When the oaks and the birches grew, more nature and water took place in the region, giving place to the verdoyante Provence we all know nowadays. Was that the idea of naming the park after Frédéric-Back? It certainly guided my lecture of the landscape; it was an allegory of the work of the virtuous Men that saved nature from the vices of humanity. Even though I found the idea poetic, I still had in mind the politics of the history of the site. I recall that the closure of the quarry and afterward of the dumpsite was the persistant local mobilizations of working class residents of Saint-Michel. It was after that, that the municipality engaged with the idea of an environmental project, for which it called on engineers and urban planners to plant trees and put in the methane regulating white spheres. Thus, the choice of the park’s name does not represent the memory of the Michelois.e.s who fought for it’s restoration over many years in the past, but rather, canonizes the urban planners and experts, in anticipation of the future heroes they are to become by planting the trees on their behalf.
As Natasha Myers (2015) mentions, plants seem static in place, but they are no less passive than any human or animal. They sense, they have memory and anticipation too, and they certainly interact with the space in which they are to survive and seek life. They have their agencies and rationales that might not even be conceivable with our way of understanding life, sensitivities, memories, anticipations, and learning (Myers, 2015). With this in mind, I remarked how trees had grown back in the quarry since it closed, and next to the mound, plant life was already taking place. Various layers of plants were growing as spring arrived. In the quarry on the other side of the fence, plants were contesting in accordance with the different moments of the site’s history. There was no mention of the local social organizations’ roles in the metamorphosis of this place, but the plants were certainly a manifestation in response to each step of it.
Thinking with nature allowed me to see the deep relation between the human and non-human worlds, and how these encounters take many different shapes. On the one side of the fence, nature appears as the organized result of techno-scientific ecological virtue shaped by anticipation. It seems apolitical and unproblematic. A very squarely disposed and limited selection of plants, for us to contemplate. On the other side, the dirtiness, the vicious traces of the humans’ ways of damaging nature, with extractive activities and accumulative waste. However, nature was very much there, intelligently growing in various times and ways without the attention and care of humans. It seemed more diverse and equally more political. Political in the way these various plants negotiate the space between themselves, but also because they are claiming back their place, like the Michelois.e.s, after a history of disturbing activities.
Nostalgia of the gulls
After my visit in this park, I also noticed that the absence of smells and noise are sensorial factors making the site “accessible” or desirable to the public. Again, I related that absence with the erasure of the Michelois.e.s’ merits in the accomplishment of the techno-scientifically “ingenious” site. Indeed, during my walk, I passed by another panel. This one rather spoke about the metamorphosis of the place:
“Le terrain du parc Frédéric-Back est en continuelle transformation depuis le début de son occupation. Les vocations du passé ont laissé des traces physiques toujours visibles aujourd’hui, notamment les falaises rocheuses, héritage des carrières qui s’y sont succédé. Les vallons verdoyants résultent de l’enfouissement des déchets. Cette transformation continuelle rend le lieu unique. Aujourd’hui, le concept de métamorphose inspire le concept du parc. À chacune de vos visites, ouvrez les yeux et observez les changements du paysage.”
This description of the place’s metamorphosis seemed to be aseptic. All the transformations appear as given, naturalized and fixed in a vague timeline where the only mention of society is by the word “occupation”. I found no other mention of the history of Saint-Michel on any other sign. Why would we want to forget such an interesting history of metamorphosis? Can we only rely simply on the landscape to tell the story of its ambitions and contradictions? With that in mind, I kept walking along the fence. Now, I was more looking at the quarry and its fascinating “messiness”. A man approached me and asked what the white spheres were all over the site. “These are methane regulators, this site used to be one of the main dumpsites of Montreal. We are apparently walking on millions of tons of buried waste right now!” The man was awed. He knew about the quarry (which was visible) but he didn’t realize he was walking on processed and buried waste. His question and reaction were not surprising as there is no sensorial way (perceptible by humans, from where we were standing) to know that except by reading the panel in the park and investigating what the spheres are.
I heard and saw gulls that were close to me among the noise of the insistent wind. What were these urban gulls doing there? There were almost no people, certainly no one picnicking in the park. There were no MacDonalds or any other fast-food parking nearby. Do they have their memory? Do they miss the organic waste that used to arrive by tons here? Could they still sense the residuals of the dumpsite? Are they nostalgic? Back in the 1980s, when the residents of Saint-Michel were complaining about the dumpsite, the comments were not only related to the smells of the site but also to the noises that the gulls were making all day. Even if the gulls were still there for reasons only they knew, they were certainly not a disturbance as they may used to be. Again, the presence and the absence of gulls were entangled with the social, physical, and natural metamorphosis of the park.
Conclusion: A more-than-human contestation
This site is not simply the result of “the men who are planting trees” with the ecological presumption that their intervention is needed for nature to heal. Rather, I want to emphasize the cyborg nature of the site, and the presence and interrelatedness of multiple more-than-human beings as a response and manifestation to the metamorphosis of the park. Its landscape is a messier response than what is mentioned in the panels, the organized gardens, the benches, the planted trees, the cut grass, or what other nature lies behind the fence. The result of this park is a political-ecological negotiation of humans, machines, plants, birds, and endless organisms proliferating, dying, displacing, and relating to political economic urban space contestations and transformations. Human and non-human natures are effectively mobile, diverse, and engaged, and whose memories certainly do not simply depend on the experts and designers’ decisions and technical conceptions to “become”.
Thinking with non-human actors in a more-than-human way gave me interesting substance to question the memory of the park as a cyborg space. Which is not only a social memory, but rather a complex political memory of human and non-human entanglements and spatial metabolisms shaped by social, political, cultural, economical orders, and that makes the anticipation for different forms of life to be constantly negotiated.
Moretti, C. (2017). Walking. In D. Elliott & D. Culhane (Eds.), A Different Kind of Ethnography (pp. 91-113). University of Toronto Press.
Myers, N. (2015). Conversations on Plant Sensing : Notes From the Field. Nature Culture, 3, 35-66. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.18910/75519
Smart, A., & Smart, J. (2017a). Posthumanism. In Posthumanism: Anthropological Insights (pp. 1-15). University of Toronto Press.
Smart, A., & Smart, J. (2017b). Technology, Cyborgs, and Transhumnism. In Posthumanism: Anthropological Insights (pp. 65-94). University of Toronto Press.